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Not Your Father's Energy Thinking

by joelado Sun Sep 30th, 2012 at 06:14:09 PM EST

Energy is found in many, many forms, many of which we name and think of as substances. We often call things like oil, coal and natural gas energy. We call the companies that extract these substances energy companies, but these substances are not energy and the companies that extract these substances are not energy companies. Have you seen a shake-it-up flashlight? Ever walk barefoot on sand that was so hot it burned your feet? Ever watch a sail boat move across a bay? Energy is equal to the movement of your hand, it is equal to sun shine beating on the sand, it is a breeze flowing though the air. Energy is energy and it cannot be created nor can it be destroyed, it is merely converted from one form to another. We don't loose energy as we use energy; energy becomes dispersed. It goes from being directed and useful to being spread out and less useful that is only if it is not contained or recaptured. This energy stuff is hard to understand because we have wrapped language around it that is more metaphor than a correct understanding of energy.

Movement is energy that can be converted into other forms of energy such as the movement of water through a water mill wheel moves the grinding stone to make flour. In a hydroelectric dam that energy is used not to turn a grinding stone but a turbine, which spins a generator to produce electric energy. In much the same way the movement of your hand in a shake-up flashlight accumulates electrons either in a battery or in a capacitor and then the electrons/electricity move through the light circuit and are converted into light. Movement = energy, energy = electricity.

In the hydro-energy cycle the sun heats up water that converts to vapor, vapor becomes less heavy then air and travels up in the atmosphere where its heat energy is dissipated. It eventually condenses back into water and ice around small particles of dust, once heavy enough it returns to earth in the form of rain and snow it collects in the streams and flows down hill by the force of gravity. We capture gravitational energy and covert it to mechanical energy as in the form of a flour-mill or in the turbines that produce electricity.

Let me break for a quick aside. Huge dams don't have to be built to capture this cycle. It is money interests, politics and poor engineering that have given us the gigantic hydroelectric dam. We can do much the same energy capture by making small structures over various places along a river that allow the river to flow freely and yet capture its movement so we can harness the power of the hydro-cycle with minimal impact to the environment and without endangering wildlife and vistas. It is only poor engineering and shortsightedness by those involved that has given rise to the giant hydroelectric dam.

Have any of you gone on to your roof on a sunny day?  Were the roof shingles hot? Where did that heat come from? You are right. It came from the sun. We build roofs to protect us from the sun and rain. When the sun hits our roofs it turns sunlight energy into heat energy. That heat energy radiates through the rafters into our attics and ends up heating our houses. We spend energy mostly from burning substances to remove that heat energy from our houses through the use of air conditioners. Instead of fighting energy with more energy and pollution, why not use the roof's surface to make electricity and hot water? Solar panels are one of the more benign ways to capture energy. They capture energy from sunlight and turn it directly into electricity. If not photovoltaic solar panels, we should at least be looking at using the sun's rays to produce hot water. We use hot water everyday. Making hot water would also allow us to heat our homes through radiant floor heating. The sunlight energy is hitting our roofs anyway.

Ever go out in a storm and see the trees whipping around? That movement is a sign that there is energy out there applying force to the branches to move them around. What is making the branches move? Oh, wind, of course. Wind power makes sense since the wind blows trees, leaves and dust around. Why not put it to use generating electricity? Wind has been used for thousands of years as a source of energy. In farms across America windmills on top of towers were how farmers pumped water out of the ground for their livestock. In Ocean City, Maryland the trees are all bent over in one direction because most of the year the wind blows constantly in one direction. Going to the beach in the winter is amazing. All the flags are tattered because of that constant, heavy wind. I looked at the power lines stretched along the highways of the ribbon like islands along the coast coming from some far away power plant where literally tons of coal are burned every day to produce electricity for these sea shore towns, all the while there is wind traveling through and over and around the buildings. Thousands of watts of wind power only being used to provide the flapping motion in flags.

There are other sources of energy that have minimal environmental impact and have gone largely unused such as geothermal, wave action conversion systems, tide conversion systems, systems to take advantage of the steady ocean currents, harnessing the power of the jet stream and ambient temperature conversion systems. WE LITERALLY ARE BATHED IN ENERGY. As Obi-Wan Kenobi said of the force the same can be said of energy, "It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." We don't have to burn a single thing to get useful energy from our surroundings, and converting or capturing all that energy and turning it into electricity, the cleanest and most universally useful form of energy, is a no-brainer. We can convert various naturally accessible energies to electricity and we can use electricity to produce heat, light, radio waves, microwaves, electron beams, motion and on and on.

The solar powered vehicles of the World Solar Challenge run for more than 30 hours during that race at average speeds greater than 60 miles an hour, powered only by sunlight hitting the surface of the vehicles. Thirty hours is only the length of time of the race however, these cars can travel continuously on the power of the sun. (Google: Xof1) What this proves is that we can make vehicles that can get their energy to move from their surroundings alone. This is quite a radical departure from our standard idea for transportation; however, it is one that can help us think of energy in a different way. It used to be that we couldn't think of a vehicle that used anything other than gasoline or diesel. Then came ethanol first as a blend and then with the advent of flexible fuel engines vehicles that can take up to 100% alcohol. We have come to learn that there are vehicles that can be powered by natural gas and liquid petroleum gases like propane.  Now we have electric vehicles in the mix. All these things have merged to allow us to think of automobiles as possibly being fueled differently. Electric energy generation can be though of in this way as well, and there is where the connection to electric vehicles changes the entire paradigm. If electricity can come from renewable energy sources and electric cars use that electricity, electric cars are renewable energy vehicles. Yes you can power a car with a wind turbine.

Energy is found in many forms and much of it is convertible into electricity. In our human history we have used biomass (wood in a fire) to keep us warm when it was cold and to cook our food. Then we learned to tame animals and hitched rides on their backs. The grazing that the animals did provided the energy we needed for transportation. We discovered how to use the wind to travel over water with sails and later we harnessed the movement of water and wind for mills to grind grain. There we stood for hundreds of years until we discovered that coal burned especially hot and water expanded tremendously as steam when boiled. With that knowledge we powered the first industrial revolution, then came oil and we got another shot in the arm for industry. Then our tinkering with electricity led us on a different path. Innovations turned away from energy and transformed our world through the advent of the computer and access to information. The usefulness of electricity has proven to be far more world changing than any other form of energy however, we were still generating it just one step up from the caveman burning wood. Our thinking surrounding energy had not changed significantly for over 100 years. However, electric vehicles allow us to think of energy differently. For example, our breaking systems in cars had not evolved that much from pressing a piece of wood against a wheel to get it to stop and we referred to the heat energy given off by friction brakes as waste heat.

Regenerative braking is part of that out of the box thinking that is opened up when we think of powering our vehicles with electricity rather than through internal combustion. Before stopping a car meant converting momentum energy into heat energy and transferring it to the air, now it means taking momentum energy and converting it into electric energy to slow down and storing that electricity in batteries and then using that energy captured through regenerative braking now in the batteries to over come inertia, which then deposits the energy in momentum energy again. When I look at the Metro rail trains around Washington, DC the most evident feature of their undercarriage is their huge disk brakes. When the all-electric trains slow down to stop at a station, part of the sound that you hear is the braking noise from those monstrous disk brakes. I look at those disks and think what an absolute waste. The Metro trains using regenerative brakes could help power the trains going up hill with the trains trying to maintain a controlled speed while going down hill. The engineers who designed those trains just don't get it.

To get it you need to think of energy in a different way. For example, the idea of one central location providing the energy needs for a wide area, especially by using fossil fuels, when we think about it, should seem ludicrous. Nikola Tesla made the big electric power plant possible with AC power originally to move the energy harnessed from Niagara Falls to Albany, New York, but energy is abundant and all around us. We don't need to do it that way anymore. The water movement in your pipes when you are taking a shower has energy in its motion sufficient if captured to power a clock. We see the heat of the day move Mercury up the thermometer, ambient heat turned into the motion energy of an expanding metal fluid. That expanding metal could push a piston that would turn a crank that would turn a gear that would spin a turbine that could produce electricity. When you start thinking out of the box like this, you discover that the number of ways to produce electricity from the energy around us are innumerable.

To solve the power plant problem we need to arrive at a more distributed or self generated form of energy generation. This new way of thinking of and capturing energy can be for all of us. It is only a matter of investment, smart design and strong political action.

Even if we don't fully move to renewable and distributed energy production, when it comes to our personal vehicles, we can make a difference. Trying to wring out greater efficiencies, and lower and lower pollution standards out of millions of internal combustion engine cars on the road is ridiculous. As internal combustion engine cars get older they become less efficient and pollute more and more. It is infinitely easier to regulate and convert a single power plant then millions of power plants on our roads and highways. Electric cars, even when being powered by coal in a power plant are far more efficient then gasoline powered cars.

The renewable electricity that I purchase for my home also powers my Volt. The energy I put into my car when going up hill comes back to me when I am going down hill. The energy I put into getting up to speed comes back to me when I am braking with regenerative brakes. Energy is momentum. An object in motion remains in motion. Energy is potential as a rock high on a mountain about to be cut loose and travel down the mountain with great force and speed. Energy is the movement of wind. Energy is heat on a hot day, the movement of waves, the tide coming up and going down, the warmth that you feel when you hug your loved ones. Energy is sunlight knocking electrons around on a solar cell and those electrons traveling down the attached wire into a car battery where it can be used later to move the car through an electric motor. If we concentrate on what energy really is we can find energy enough for all we wish to do with it without ever having to burn, pollute, fight wars for, or pay extortionist prices to get at it. All we need to do is think of energy in a different way.

beautiful essay, Joe.  truly timely and timelessly true...♥♥♥

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Oct 4th, 2012 at 06:43:36 PM EST
Thanks for this.

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher
by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Fri Oct 5th, 2012 at 02:04:35 AM EST

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